Sign Language: The Silent System

I recently had the opportunity to meet Nombulelo Cekwana, Folio’s experienced South African Sign Language interpreter who shared details of her fascinating job. I was quite surprised when I learned that a country with eleven official languages had only one sign language. This fact made me think about the status of sign language in South Africa.

Let’s begin by clarifying that sign language is not universal. We may think that creating a new communication system with different varieties is not very practical. But, like spoken languages, sign languages are unfixed entities that rely on culture and evolve according to users’ needs.

Signs can be based on visual images, and speakers from different cultures may associate words with different concepts. The sign for ‘December’ in Spanish Sign Language is a good example, as it is represented by a traditional instrument played during Christmas in Spain called a ‘zambomba’.

‘December’ – Spanish Sign Language
Child playing the zambomba

Signs can also rely on the fingerspelling, like ‘December’ in American Sign Language, which consists of an abbreviated spelling of the word, using its first letters ‘DEC’.

‘December’ – American Sign Language

Due to the lexicon differences, spelling patterns will not fit every language, as the difference between ‘January’ and the Spanish equivalent ‘enero’ shows clearly.

The result of language variation is a non-universal signing system, but also sign languages being independent of spoken languages, i.e. in countries like South Africa, the UK and the US, English is the lingua franca, but each country has a different sign language.

The sign for ‘Monday’ is an example of initialism in British and American Sign Language, as both use signs for the letter ‘M’, with the contrast that each of them uses their own fingerspelling system.

Signs for ‘Monday’ (left) – British Sign Language; and ‘M’ (right) – American Sign Language

South African Sign Language uses a different system: The sign for ‘Monday’ is based on the order of the days in the week, as we can notice by comparing ‘Monday’ and ‘Tuesday’.

Signs for ‘Monday’ (left) and ‘Tuesday’ (right) – South African Sign Language


The absence of a direct link between signed and spoken languages can be ascribed to the evolution of sign languages. Their evolution was determined by education. As the majority of deaf children are born to hearing families, they learn their mother tongue at school. An example of the crucial role of education in the evolution of sign languages is the teaching of sign language in Ireland. Boys and girls were educated in separate schools applying different systems, which resulted in a deaf community with gender dialects. However, the gap diminished as women tended to acquire the male variety after school.

The first evidence for the use of signs to educate deaf children dates back to 15th century Spain, when a Spanish monk began using a manual alphabet to teach his deaf pupils. But it was in France where a real deaf education system was implemented for the first time in the mid-18th century by the Abbe Charles Michel de l’Épée. The French teaching method was adopted in the US when the American School for the Deaf was established in 1817 with the assistance of a French educator. In Ireland, sign language was also influenced by the French method, which was taught in the Catholic deaf institutions. In Britain, the sign language that emerged in the first school for the deaf set the basis for British Sign Language, and from there it was exported to Australia and New Zealand. The signing methods of these three countries are considered dialects of the same sign language called BANZSL (British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language).

As a consequence of this evolution, American and Irish sign languages are closer to French Sign Language than to British sign language, whereas sign language in the UK, Australia and New Zealand is quite similar.


South African Sign Language is considered a descendant of BANZSL and according to Ethnologue, the correspondence between British Sign Language and SASL is 60%. The history of South Africa is reflected in the evolution of the language, which was influenced by different signing methods. The first school for deaf white children was run by Irish nuns, who introduced Irish Sign Language. There were other schools that began using British Sign Language, the first one was established by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1881. And because of the presence of American text books, American fingerspelling was introduced.

De la Bat

The National Institute for the Deaf (NID) also utilises the British Sign Language System. Established by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1881, the NID would go on to become an invaluable asset to the South African deaf community: It gave rise to De la Bat, the independent school for the deaf in Worcester. Training and skills development initiatives by the NID continue to make the labour market more accessible to the deaf community, and residential care facilities provide homes to many members.

Sign language was, however, mainly used by the deaf pupils outside the classroom as it was considered an inferior mode of communication until the end of the 20th century, to the point of being forbidden in schools as a teaching method. There were also other reasons for an increasing contrast between the sign languages of different schools. Under the apartheid policies, children were separated by race, and black children were also separated by mother tongue. Nevertheless, despite the division-generated varieties, it did not result in different sign languages. Even if the system used differed from one school to the next, deaf students moved around the country and interacted with one other. Consequently, the varieties tended to converge.

Presently SASL is slowly gaining recognition. As from 2014 Sign Language is taught as a first language in South African schools for the deaf. The reference language used nowadays in deaf education throughout the country is English, and signers are more connected through the extensive use of technology. These aspects are causing standardisation of South African Sign Language, even if certain regional dialectal differences are maintained as in any natural language.

Nombulelo Cekwana

Sharing impressions with Folio’s interpreter made me think about the role of sign language in deaf people’s lives. It is of the same importance as mother-tongue language for everyone else. She amazed me with her experience of the most challenging jobs she had to perform in hospitals, like interpreting for a woman in labour or giving news about a patient’s disease. Considering the possibility of experiencing one of these situations whilst being deprived of language makes us understand the importance of sign language and the people who do valuable work so that communication is available for everybody.

Raquel Sánchez Herero 05/09/2019 botha   Sep 05, 2019   History, Linguistics   0 Comment Read More

Paraprosdokians and other troglodytes

Linguists come up with some very strange terminology in their quest to classify all the different permutations of language. In this blog I give a brief overview of some of these terms. You may find it interesting if these phenomena crop up in everyday language and you may even impress your colleagues with your newly acquired knowledge!

Antanaclasis: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”  – Benjamin Franklin. In this figure of speech a word or phrase is repeated within a sentence, but the word or phrase means something different each time it appears. Another two examples: “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”; “In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, Party always finds you!” – Yakov Smirnoff.

Dangling modifier: This is a grammatical construct whereby a grammatical modifier could be misinterpreted as being associated with a word other than the one intended, or with no particular word at all. For example: “Hoping to garner favour, my parents were sadly unimpressed with the gift.” We don’t know who or what was hoping to garner favour. If we add a proper subject the modifier is not left dangling anymore: “Hoping to garner favour, my new boyfriend brought my parents a gift that sadly left them unimpressed.”

Donkey sentence: Donkey sentences are sentences that contain a pronoun whose reference is clear to the reader (it is bound semantically) but whose syntactical role in the sentence poses challenges to grammarians: “Every farmer who owns a donkey beats it.” “Every police officer who arrested a murderer insulted him.”

False scent: Writing that causes the reader to second-guess: Because the writer knows what is coming ahead, she may forget that her reader doesn’t, and unwittingly lay a “false scent” by writing something ambiguous that can only be disambiguated later in the text. The reader, once he realises he has been distracted, must go back and rescan the sentence or paragraph to understand the writer’s intended meaning. Example: “When compiling a dictionary from postal contributions, we sort the letters in order to be able to refer to them later.”
“Letters” may be taken to be those of the alphabet, and so “order” to mean alphabetical order, laying the false scent that is not detected until the reader reaches “refer”, if even then.

Paraprosdokian: A figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence, phrase or larger discourse is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing — after they have tried everything else.” – Winston Churchill

Syntactic ambiguity: Also called amphiboly or amphibology, this is a situation where a sentence may be interpreted in more than one way due to an ambiguous sentence structure. Example: “A lady with a clipboard stopped me in the street the other day. She said, ‘Can you spare a few minutes for cancer research?’ I said, ‘All right, but we’re not going to get much done.’” – Jimmy Carr.

Crash blossom: A sentence, often a news headline, which is subject to incorrect interpretation due to syntactic ambiguity. From the headline “Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms.” The correct interpretation is that a blossoming violinist was linked to the crash (by her father having been on the plane). The wrong interpretation is that the violinist is linked to something called a crash blossom.

Troglodyte: OK, so this isn’t really a linguistic term, but it is nice term to have in your arsenal if you want to insult someone and sound educated at the same time. A troglodyte is a human cave dweller. From the Greek trogle (“hole, mouse-hole”) and dyein (“go in, dive in”).

And what can you do with this newly-acquired terminology? You can look out for examples in everyday language in verbal or non-verbal form, or employ these literary devices to improve your writing or to make it more entertaining. botha   Nov 30, 2018   Linguistics   0 Comment Read More